What are Biphasic and Polyphasic Sleep Schedules?

If you know anything about sleep, you know that a solid eight hours is the only way to be waking up feeling energized and healthy.

Lack of sleep can contribute to just about every physical and mental issue under the sun.

Sleep-deprived individuals are less creative, more easily distracted, more accident-prone, more irritable, and more likely to get anxious and/or depressed.

They’re also far more likely to get sick or develop serious medical conditions like diabetes or hypertension.

 Or at least, that’s the way medical experts have traditionally thought about sleep loss.

However, while it’s true that, the way most people sleep, chronic sleep deprivation is very much a bad decision, a growing community of sleep-slashing individuals has recently begun to experiment with alternative sleep cycles.

It’s called polyphasic sleeping, and it just might challenge everything we know about sleep. 

Image: woman asleep at nightWhat’s So Great About 8 Hours Straight?

Although many people think that a straight eight hours of sleep is the only healthy option, the truth is that for much of Western history, “monophasic” sleeping – that is, sleeping for a single, uninterrupted stretch of time – wasn’t as common as you might think.

The light bulb, it’s important to remember, wasn’t invented until 1879, and artificial lighting didn’t become commonly available in most countries until the 20th century.

Before then, most people’s sleep schedules were mostly determined by the rising and setting of the sun.

The thing is, though, for much of the year, the sun is down for around 12 hours – far more time than most people need to be asleep.

So, while most people would go to sleep not too long after sundown, it wasn’t uncommon to wake up for an hour or two in the middle of the night.

They’d use this extra time to go and visit with neighbors, take care of some small tasks around the house, or get a little more “friendly” with their husband or wife.

In other societies – particularly in the warmer parts of the world – it’s still common for people to take a fairly lengthy siesta in the middle of the day.

There’s some evidence to suggest that this kind of midday sleeping improves memory and energy levels later in the day.

In any case, both interrupted sleep and siesta-based sleep are referred to as “biphasic” sleep schedules.

People subscribing to these kinds of schedules are still usually getting around 8 hours every night, but it’s broken up into smaller chunks than you might expect.

The point is, sleeping for a single, unbroken stretch might not be as natural as you’d think!

Image: businessman takes power napBut What Is “Polyphasic” Sleeping?

And that brings us to polyphasic sleeping.

Under this kind of sleep cycle, an individual breaks up their sleeping into three or more segments spaced throughout the day.

The difference between biphasic and polyphasic sleeping, however, is that polyphasic strategies typically involve getting fewer hours of sleep than the doctor-recommended eight.

There are several varieties of polyphasic sleep – too many to get into all the details here – but there are basically two main strategies.

The first involves keeping a fairly large block of sleep at night, supplemented by several 20 or 30 minute sleep periods.

Your second option involves several smaller blocks of sleep distributed strategically throughout the 24-hour day.

Some of these sleep schedules allow you to dramatically cut back on the amount of time you’re spending on sleep – in one case, to as little as 2 hours each day!

Shouldn’t That Kill You?

Now, I know what you’re thinking: that should kill you. 

Trying to cheat sleep is typically like trying to cheat the devil.

It might work for a little while, but in the end, he always gets his due. 

To be perfectly clear, that very well might be the case with polyphasic sleeping.

We’ll get to the possibility for long-term effects in a minute, but for now, let’s just let the polyphasics have their say.

The basic idea is that polyphasic sleeping condenses the normal phases of sleep.

During the night, your brain normally goes through several sleep stages, each of which is marked by the presence of certain electric waves that are believed to play a major role in the restorative effects of sleep.

In polyphasic sleepers, studies have shown that your brain still progresses through these same sleep stages while you nap, but just at a much faster rate.

The brain waves are amplified, since you’re basically trying to crush a full night’s sleep into a fraction of the time.

This is a natural response to sleep deprivation on the part of your brain, since it’s essentially trying to catch up on lost sleep using whatever time it has.

Beyond that loose explanation, though, the exact mechanisms at play still are very poorly understood.

What we do know, however, is that numerous people have gone pure polyphasic for several years at a time, apparently without any serious impacts on their health.

Yeah, It Might Kill You. Who Knows?

It’s important to realize, however, just how little research has been done on polyphasic sleepers.

Most of the information available right now is purely anecdotal, compiled by enthusiasts on Reddit threads and sites like polyphasicsociety.com.

Needless to say, many sleep experts aren’t exactly fans of this new fad.

Again, common sense seems to say that this lost sleep will catch up to you at some point.

There’s a huge amount of research pointing to the catastrophic effects of sleep deprivation, and even if polyphasic sleepers don’t report many symptoms right now, it’s unclear what the effects will be in the future.

It’s worth noting that no one has successfully kept up a polyphasic sleep schedule for more than a couple years, and there have been no long-term studies of late-life health effects.

At the same time, though, the most famous advocate for polyphasic sleeping was renowned inventor Buckminster Fuller, who lived on two hours of sleep for two years straight – and he lived to be 87!

On the other hand, there’s a small but growing body of research on the role of sleep in brain-based waste removal.

Apparently, there are bits of “plaque” that accumulate in your brain throughout the day, and sleep is when they get cleared out.

Accumulation of this kind of plaque has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, and might contribute to other neurological problems, as well.

Again, we’re only starting to get glimpses into the complete picture.

The Benefits of Polyphasic Sleeping

Even given these risks, however, there are a number of advantages to polyphasic sleeping that are pretty difficult to pass up.

Most people turn to it for the sheer amount of time it makes available.

Shaving even an hour or two off the recommended eight hours of sleep makes you that much more productive, and you also get more time to spend simply doing things you enjoy.

Additionally, if you can get past the first few weeks of exhaustion that typically come with going polyphasic, most people find themselves highly energized for pretty much the entire day, except during the times they’ve set aside for sleep.

And once you’ve gone polyphasic, even when you do eventually switch back to monophasic sleep, one lasting side effect is the ability to fall asleep extremely quickly, even in lousy conditions.

This makes polyphasic sleeping a tempting option for people suffering from insomnia.

After all, if you’re going to be getting less sleep than you need anyway, why not take the route that lets you stop feeling tired?

(Note, however, that most medical professionals recommend improving your sleep habits, consulting a sleep specialist, and possibly considering cognitive behavioral therapy as ways to combat chronic insomnia.)

The Drawbacks to Polyphasic Sleeping

In addition to the ominous medical risks you might be taking on with polyphasic sleep, there are also a number of more apparent drawbacks.

First of all, the process of acclimating to polyphasic sleep to begin with it utter hell.

Your body hates not getting enough sleep, and you may have to go through several weeks or even months of feeling absolutely exhausted before you finish adjusting to your freakish new schedule.

Many people do not succeed at polyphasic sleeping, at least on their first try.

In fact, for all we know, it might not actually be possible for some people to get away with it!

Additionally, even if you can manage to force yourself into segmented sleep, you might actually find that it’s not as enjoyable as you thought.

Our world is built around monophasic sleepers – and even if you originally thought you’d love all this extra time, there are a lot of downsides to not sleeping at night you’ve probably never considered.

It’s also pretty much impossible to keep up polyphasic sleeping while also maintaining a normal, 9-to-5 job, and the sheer social pressure of living in a monophasic world is one of the main reasons why people tend to give up the practice.

There are also a few other, smaller sacrifices you’ll have to make, like giving up all alcohol and caffeine. 

Conclusion

Polyphasic sleeping is still a largely unexplored topic in modern science, and the complete risks and benefits are not fully understood.

If you do choose to take up this kind of sleep schedule, be aware that it is not recommended by most sleep experts, and no one has ever kept it up for more than a couple years.

These are dangerous waters.

Choose wisely.